Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shoes: A Modest Proposal

Yesterday, while buying a new pair of shoes, I noticed something interesting. The wide size was comfortable on my left foot, tight on the right. The extra wide was comfortable on the right, loose on the left.

According to the seller, that is a common, perhaps even normal, pattern—the right foot tends to be just a tiny bit bigger than the left. My wife confirmed the pattern from her own experience.

My first thought was that perhaps a high end brand could take advantage of the pattern by selling shoes individually—one to fit the left foot, one to fit the right—instead of in pairs. It then occurred to me that the mass market approach would be to routinely make the right shoe of each pair a fraction of a size larger than the left. The first firm that did that ought to increase its sales, since lots of people would find its shoes a little more comfortable than the shoes of its competitors. 

At which point it occurred to me that perhaps it was already happening. Does anyone know? Are right shoes and left shoes precise mirror images of each other, as I assumed, or do some firms routinely make one just a tiny bit bigger than the other?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's All in How You Say It

"Shamed former French leader Jacques Chirac has been found guilty of corruption and given a suspended jail sentence, becoming France's first ex-president to be convicted for his crimes."   News story

George Orwell, Dishonest Rhetoric, and the Libertarian Movement

 The key-word here is ‘objectively’.
     We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are ‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.
 George Orwell, "As I please," 8 December 1944.

I was recently reminded of this passage in Orwell by posts on two different libertarian blogs. One, by Roderick Long, is a defense of left-libertarians who accuse right-libertarians of supporting government favoritism towards big business. He writes:
So when left-libertarians accuse (some) right-libertarians of supporting corporatism, this is to be understood in a de re sense, not in a de dicto sense. Thus the claim is that right-libertarians are supporting certain policies/institutions/phenomena that are in fact instances of corporatism; we are not claiming that right-libertarians are deliberately supporting them qua instances of corporatism – and so pointing out that they’re not is not relevant as a reply to the original point.
The language is different, employing the philosophical distinction between de re and de dicto instead of the political misuse of "objectively," but the logic is the same. Accuse someone of supporting something and then explain, when challenged, that you don't actually mean he supports it, you mean he supports things that you think support it.

The other post was by Walter Block, accusing Wendy McElroy of not being a libertarian. To Walter's credit, he goes into some detail in describing the immense evidence that Wendy is a libertarian, having been active in the movement for decades. But he concludes that nonetheless she is not, on the grounds that she opposes the Ron Paul campaign, which Walter believes libertarians ought to support. He writes:
I distinguish between being a libertarian, and agreeing with (virtually all) libertarian principles. The former implies that you act so as to promote liberty. The latter means that you agree with these principles, and, may, perhaps, as in her case at present, act against them. I have no doubt that Wendy is a libertarian in the second sense. Her whole adult life gives amply testimony to that fact. She believes in the libertarian message, fervently. She defends it, brilliantly. She extends it, creatively. But, as far as acting so as to promote liberty, her trashing of Dr. Ron Paul’s candidacy gives the lie to that. Belief is necessary, but not sufficient, for being a libertarian. Wendy passes the first test, but not the second.
Hence "not a libertarian" turns out to mean "disagreeing with Walter Block about what tactics libertarians should employ."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won (and probably deserved to win) a Nobel prize in economics, is a book well worth reading; I just finished it. Its subject is how the human mind works and, in particular, why we make the predictable mistakes that we do make. 

The central insight is that we act as if we had two different mechanisms for making sense of the world around us and deciding what to do. System 1—intuition broadly defined—works automatically and very quickly to recognize a voice over the phone, tell whether a stranger's face is expressing anger, generate conclusions on a wide range of subjects. System 2—conscious thought—takes the conclusions generated by System 1 and either accepts them or rejects them in favor of its own conclusions, generated much more slowly and with greater effort. Attention is a limited resource, so using System 2 to do all the work is not a practical option. 

System 1 achieves its speed by applying simple decision rules. Its view of probability, for instance, functions largely by classifying gambles into three categories—impossible, possible, or certain. One result is that an increase in probability within the middle category, say from 50% to 60%, appears less significant than an increase of the same size from 0% to 10% or from 90% to 100%. 

That simple fact provides a solution to a very old problem in economics, the lottery-insurance puzzle. If someone is risk averse, he buys insurance, reducing, at some cost, the uncertainty of his future. If someone is risk preferring, he buys lottery tickets, increasing, at some cost, the uncertainty of his future. Why do some people do both?

Kahneman's answer is that insuring against your house burning down converts a very unattractive outcome (your house burns down and you are much worse off as a result) from probability 1% to probability 0%, a small gain in probability but a large gain in category (from possible to impossible). Buying a lottery ticket converts a very attractive outcome (you get a million dollars) from probability 0% to probability .001%, a small gain in probability but a large gain in category (from impossible to possible). Both changes are more attractive, as viewed by System 1, than they would be as viewed by a rational gambler.

If you have read Nudges, many of the errors Kahneman describes will be already familiar to you. The difference is that Thaler and Sunstein take those errors as observed facts; Kahneman explains, for the most part plausibly, why we make them, and supports his explanations with evidence. And while Kahneman has a few comments on political implications of his results, his main focus is on telling the reader what mistakes he is likely to make and why, in the hope of helping him to make fewer of them.

One of the attractions of Kahneman's book is that although some of his evidence consists of descriptions of the results of experiments, his own or others, quite a lot of it consists of putting a question to the reader and then pointing out that the answer the reader probably offered, the one most people offer, is not only wrong but provably, in some sense obviously, wrong. 

Consider the following example:
Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is she more likely to be:

A bank teller
A bank teller and active in the feminist movement
Most of the people to whom the question was put judged the second alternative as more likely than the first—despite that being logically impossible. System 1 has a weak grasp of probability and so, in this case as in many others, substitutes for the question it cannot answer an easier question it can, in this case “which sounds more like a description of Linda.”

The book is more than four hundred pages long; if I tried to summarize all of it this would be a very long post. Read it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Great Comment on Someone Else's Blog

Will being a brilliant software engineer get you a smokin’-hot babe for a wife? No, it won’t. (There are exceptions to this.) But unless you’re a complete jerk, there’s probably an accountant with a cute smile who shares your love of HP Lovecraft, or a genetics lab tech with a great laugh who plays Dungeons and Dragons, or an IT consultant who loves to cuddle and is willing to put up with your cat’s YouTube fame.

It is less the case that shy, successful people are purchasing access to a mate and more the case that the shy, successful people have finally found a common breeding ground to spawn.

(comment by Anatid to a post on The Volokh Conspiracy)